Loving the 747

Who knew you could love an airplane? If your heart flutters when hearing the throaty vroom of a Harley or steering a Mustang tightly around a curve – you know about love and big engines. During the lucky years I worked for American Airlines, I loved most of those big-engined aircraft that comprised our fleet. Years into the job, one of them, a big, gorgeous hump-back claimed my heart.

Early on, when I managed to bid the trips I wanted, I mostly chose the Boeing 707, preferably in first class. The planes were spacious and luxurious. First class seats had a cocktail table between them, linen head rests and plenty of leg room. Even coach was comfortable. Today’s Sardine Seating was not even a discussion back in the Golden Era of Aviation.

Across from the first class galley was a six seat semi-circular lounge where many cocktails were shared alongside the fancy hors d’oeuvre trays we served. I observed card games, job interviews and budding romance in the lounge. Dear Abby answered hundreds of letters from that lounge out of a huge canvas sack dragged on board by her secretary.

Our food service was really good despite the comedians’ jabs at “toy food.” In fact, in first class it was downright delicious. From a service cart in the aisle, we tossed salads from scratch with homemade dressings, carved prime rib or roast loin of pork and made fresh hot fudge sundaes that we slathered with whipped cream, nuts and cherries if desired.

Yup, life in the skies was really good. And then came the 707’s big sister, the 747. WOW didn’t begin to describe our wide-eyed reactions as we trained on her. EVERYTHING was bigger. The cabin was 20 feet wide and instead of 139 passengers with a full load, we’d be welcoming 396. First class was jumping from 16 to 66!! As the training instructor saw our reaction to the first passenger statistics she added, “No problem, there will be 14 of you in cabin crew, not 6.” Even that did not seem like enough.

And this huge thing was going to become airborne? Actually lift off the ground? HOW? Back to the big engines, I guess. They’d better be really big.

Training on any new aircraft involves safety first and it takes time when all the equipment numbers are multiplied by three. Crews have to know not only the location of all safety equipment but its operation as well. We didn’t pull life rafts out of the ceiling on a routine basis, but we did on a new airplane. Evacuation training, never a light-hearted subject, took on an even more serious tenor as the sheer numbers of passengers we would be responsible for began to sink in.

Another class day we learned about all the services, the day-to-day operations of the 747flights from the departure gate to arrival. Food service was to be a complete change. The new galleys were going to be below decks! What? One crew member in each class would be trained to work the galley position alone – downstairs! Huh? There will be spinet pianos in both coach and first class! Seriously?

Yes, they were serious. There were big changes afoot. I couldn’t wait to fly on her.

With eight years seniority, I felt like a new stewardess the day I first worked a 747 flight – JFK to San Juan. The surroundings were so big, so glamorous it was easy to stand up straight wearing our best smiles knowing we were welcoming guests into our newest living rooms. I could hear “Your Spanish Eyes” being played distantly from the coach cabin. Someone was playing jazz in first class as the full load of mostly vacationers boarded for our 6:00 PM departure. One man walked on board, stopped abruptly and just stared. He looked around trying to take in the festive atmosphere, the lush lighting, and the spiral staircase to the upper lounge and flight deck. He turned to me and said, “What time does this place get to San Juan?”

The next four laughter-filled hours were typical of our flights down to Puerto Rico and I chose to fly it a bit because I was so proud and thrilled with what American had created. The reason I didn’t bid to fly it a lot was the return flight.

My regular readers know I’m a night owl, so the midnight departure from San Juan was not a problem for me. The problem was the passengers.

In sharp contrast to the fun-filled atmosphere from New York was the sad, almost third world group of people who boarded our return flight to the big apple. The vacationers usually returned home on morning flights. The midnight departures were also full, but mostly due to the bargain pricing for that time of day.

Many of those impoverished Puerto Ricans were flying to the city to begin a new life. The coach section was heavy with tired little children clinging to their mothers, terrified of the noises, the big airplane, the strange surroundings. Tear-filled goodbyes in the departure lounge were normal. Our mostly Spanish-speaking passengers cowered in their seats behind a wall of poverty, fear and a huge world of unknown that awaited them upon a dawn arrival. It was hard for me to believe that these desperate people were American citizens.

Strangely, I was glad that the luxurious airplane that I loved provided at least some physical comfort, but I doubt that they knew the difference.

After a few months, I had to bid off the flights when heartache took over every return trip. I could only do the four, short hours of my job with these people. I wasn’t able to help change their lives. Finally I couldn’t take the trip anymore, despite loving my 747. The juxtaposition got to me – of carefree resort-bound vacationers and these sad islanders whose only destination was a bottomless barrio, not a beach.

There were many days that I had to admit to myself that the job was harder than it used to be.

Yet, despite all that, “my” airplane had made a lifelong impression on me. It was truly beautiful. Tremendous thought toward her safety, atmosphere, comfort were designed into the pride of the fleet back in the 1970’s. I think the price tag then was about 24 million for one of those beauties.

Today the latest version of a 747 tops out at about 378 million. More than 1500 have been purchased by airlines all over the world. Last week’s “CBS Sunday Morning” did an article about the retirement of Boeing’s 747. The big, whale-roofed planes will become mostly freighters while more fuel efficient, new-tech planes will carry passengers.

In my memory, and in my heart, she was priceless, an experience never expected, and never surpassed. Many of my flight attendant friends who flew longer than me worked on a whole newer class of jumbo jets, but for me there was only one for my lifetime.

The experiences, the conversations, the crews, the passengers, the friends, they are all still there in my memory of an era that is irreplaceable. But I will always love my old humpbacked friend. The 747 was # 1. One of a kind.